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Commonwealth v. Baldwin

December 28, 2009

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
BLAINE BALDWIN, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Superior Court Order dated April 1, 2008, 961 EDA 2007, affirming the Judgment of Sentence entered March 8, 2007 in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, CP-51-CR-0604811-2006.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Greenspan

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: May 12, 2009

OPINION

Appellant Blaine Baldwin appeals the Superior Court's order affirming the judgment of sentence for one count of possession of a firearm without a license and one count of carrying a firearm on the public streets of Philadelphia. We allowed this appeal to consider whether 42 Pa.C.S. § 9765 requires that Appellant's two convictions merge for sentencing purposes. We hold that a plain reading of Section 9765 reveals the General Assembly's intent that crimes with different statutory elements be punished separately. As each of the two offenses here contains distinct elements, we conclude that, under Section 9765, the consecutive sentences imposed were proper. Accordingly, we affirm.

On January 13, 2006 at approximately 1:15 a.m., Philadelphia Police Officer Charles Waters observed a car making an illegal turn without signaling. The officer pulled the car over for a traffic violation. While asking the driver for his license and registration, Officer Waters noticed Appellant moving around in the left rear seat. Officer Waters instructed Appellant to place his hands on the headrest in front of him. Although Appellant initially complied, moments later, Officer Waters noticed that the Appellant was again moving. The officer ordered Appellant out of the car, at which time Officer Waters detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from Appellant. After Appellant repeatedly ignored instructions to place his hands on the trunk of the vehicle, Officer Waters frisked Appellant and found a gun in his front pants pocket.

Appellant was charged with two counts of violating the Uniform Firearms Act: one count of carrying a firearm without a license, 18 Pa.C.S. § 6108, and one count of carrying a firearm on the public streets or property of Philadelphia, 18 Pa.C.S. § 6108. Appellant waived his right to a jury and, on December 19, 2006, was tried by the Honorable Leon Tucker of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The trial court found Appellant guilty of both charges and sentenced him to three-and-a-half (3 1/2 ) to seven (7) years imprisonment for carrying a firearm without a license, and two (2) to four (4) years incarceration and one year of probation for carrying a firearm on the public streets of Philadelphia. The trial court ordered that the sentences be served consecutively.

Appellant filed an appeal, claiming that the trial court erred in imposing consecutive sentences. Appellant insisted that his convictions merged for sentencing purposes. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court's judgment of sentence in an unpublished memorandum. We granted allowance of appeal on the following issue:

Should not this Court clarify the doctrine of sentencing merger, and its implications under constitutional double jeopardy analysis, under circumstances where the exact same set of facts satisfies the elements of two different offenses?

Appellant concedes the relevance of the applicable statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9765, Merger of Sentences, to our determination of his appeal. Appellant argues, however, that our prior case law should inform our application of Section 9765. Appellant relies specifically on this Court's expressions in Commonwealth v. Jones, 912 A.2d 815 (Pa. 2006) (plurality) and Commonwealth v. Anderson, 650 A.2d 20 (Pa. 1994). He argues that, based on these cases, this Court should decline to interpret Section 9765 as a strict statutory elements approach to merger. He proffers instead that this Court should conclude that under Section 9765 sentences must merge where the same narrow set of facts establishes both crimes. Any other interpretation, argues Appellant, triggers constitutional concerns, specifically a violation of double jeopardy protections.

The Commonwealth, on the other hand, argues that the General Assembly's enactment of Section 9765 is an explicit implementation of a statutory elements approach to merger. According to the Commonwealth, Section 9765 clearly indicates the legislature's intent that criminal defendants' sentences do not merge unless all of the elements of one offense are included within the elements of the other offense. Appellant's sentence, insists the Commonwealth, was proper according to the plain terms of Section 9765.

For decades, articulating the contours and application of the merger doctrine has proven a complex task for courts across this country, and this Court has been no exception. However, we confront the instant case in a unique posture, that is, we are required here to apply the statute in which our legislature has set out a standard for merger of sentences. We begin with our standard of review, our well-established standard of statutory interpretation, and the statute itself.

Whether Appellant's convictions merge for sentencing is a question implicating the legality of Appellant's sentence. Consequently, our standard of review is de novo and the scope of our review is plenary. See Commonwealth v. Collins, 764 A.2d 1056, 1057, 1057 n.1 (Pa. 2001). "The best evidence of legislative intent is the words used by the General Assembly." In re Nomination Petition of Paulmier, 937 A.2d 364, 372 (Pa. 2007). Further, this Court must, whenever possible, give effect to all provisions of a statute, 1 Pa.C.S. ยง 1921(a), and unless a phrase has a technical, peculiar, or otherwise defined meaning, that phrase must be construed according to its common and approved usage. 1 ...


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